26 January 2005 2005 nian 1 yue 26 hao

Editorial: Cultural Ignorance Is Here To Stay

Of all the random english conversations that I've had in China, not one has started with me hearing the question "Excuse me, do you speak english?" Sometimes I am very tempted to interrupt and say, in chinese, that I'm very sorry, I can't speak english, I only speak Australian. If I was believed, which is quite possible, then at least it would cure one person of the assumption that every caucasian speaks english. But I could never really do it, because it would also mean that one person would go home with a new misconception about Australia, and cultural ignorance and misunderstanding is something that I have spent a lot of effort fighting against during my two years in China. Even my chinese blog, which began as a way to keep in contact with my friends, seems to have turned into a platform for dispelling myths about Australia and western culture.

It feels like a burden sometimes, and it's all the more frustrating because I know that none of my preaching can ever make a real dent in the collective ignorance of more than a billion people. Even to straighten out a single person's ideas about a single topic sometimes seems close to impossible, because a one-sentence question might demand nothing less than a book-length reply. Consider these statements: "The bible has had a great influence on western culture", "Every english name has a meaning", and "Australia is very hot". If these were said by a westerner, a native english speaker, and an Australian respectively, I would not consider them incorrect, because I would know that the speaker was drawing upon a lifetime of experience and knowledge to make a generalisation. Each statement is the tiny tip of a huge iceburg. But if I heard one of these statements uttered by somebody who had lived all their life in China, I would have quite the opposite impression: that this single statement is their only morsel of knowledge on the topic, and that if there is an iceburg of beliefs and opinions dangling underneath it then it is wholly derived from this one, misleading generalisation.

I have heard many, many statements similar to these ones, everything from "Foreigners are very direct" to "Australia is a beautiful country", from "Chinese tourists are mistreated in America" to "Buying a car is to a foreigner what buying a bicycle is to chinese." A complete stranger in a bus station once struck up a conversation with me about how open-minded foreigners are about sex. Rather than these "facts", I would prefer to hear questions, since I do believe that the only stupid question is that one that is not asked, but all the same the common questions I hear display a stunning lack of cultural knowledge, for example "What language is spoken in Australia?" or "Will you go home to celebrate Spring Festival with your family?" Of course, I am asked a great deal of biographical questions, but culture related questions like these ones are actually much less common than hearing misconceived or plain incorrect generalisations. This may seem strange at first, but on reflection it makes a lot of sense. I have commented before that asking questions about a foreign culture is extremely difficult, since it requires one to imagine where differences might lie. For example, one of the most intelligent questions that I have heard was "Do cigarettes in your country look the same as chinese ones?" (They do, but it was very clever to consider that they might not).

I encounter cultural ignorance again and again, but not from everybody. When meeting a new person, I now very quickly divide them into one of two groups: one is the type of person who makes these kinds of wild statements, the other type does not. I am reminded of a quote from Mark Twain: "It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt". In this case, the "mouth shut" type of person may be a perfectly good conversationalist in all other respects, they just don't seem to have the urge to make blanket statements about foreign cultures which they know virtually nothing about. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to predict which group a person will fall into, since it doesn't seem to correlate with age, social status, education level, english ability, interest in foreign countries, or any other factor.

At this point, perhaps some readers are thinking: it's finally happened, he has fallen from his perch of cultural tolerance and started to rant about the ignorant, parochial chinese. Well, sorry, but it's not just China!

Once I had got over the initial shock that not everybody in the world knows what size a kangaroo is, I realised that in fact most people's knowledge about the world beyond their country's borders is extraordinarily slim. For example, China is by no measure a small or easily overlooked country, yet there are still a vast number of people who do not know even the simplest facts about it, such as how to pronounce Beijing (hint: the first syllable is not pronounced like the colour "beige"), or that in the 21st century communist doctrine has virtually no bearing on the lives of ordinary people in so-called "Red China", or that millions of chinese do not like rice. As another example, do you know that it snows in Australia? And if you know more about France than the fact that people there speak French and eat snails, then I'm sad to say that you know more about French culture than I do.

And whatever we think we know about a foreign culture may well be very superficial or very skewed. A person who was writing a piece for a magazine saw my article on chinese snack food and contacted me to ask a few questions about the snacking habits of chinese children. However, I had to admit that I couldn't answer any of her questions. In any case, a complete and accurate answer on this topic would fill at least several pages of a magazine, and would have to discuss different regions of China, the variation between rural and urban areas, and the enormous changes to children's snacking habits over the last decade or two. Yet she just wanted one sentence to insert into her article, and even added that the more exotic it was, the better. As a writer, she was just looking for some information to support her arguments and add some interest to her article, and I don't think there is anything wrong with that. But unfortunately, if it is through magazine articles like this one that people gain their general knowledge of foreign cultures, then I fear it is little better than misinformation.

Mispronouncing Pinyin

The spelling "Beijing" uses the PRC's official pinyin standard for romanisation. In the older Wade-Giles romanisation system, which remained a de facto standard for several decades and is still in use in Taiwan, it is rendered as "Pei-ching". ("Peking" is yet another spelling for exactly the same two chinese characters, but its origin is not entirely certain, as this article explains).

Without training, an english speaker has no hope of saying chinese words accurately because they cannot pronounce the tones (variations in pitch), and in any case tone marks are usually omitted from pinyin in everything except dictionaries and textbooks, but let us consider just the sounds. With no knowledge of the pinyin system, an english speaker's pronounciation of "Beijing" will not be correct, but it will at least be a bit better than "Pei-ching" or "Peking". But there are some symbols in pinyin that you would never guess in a million years, for example "zh" as in Zhongguo (China) sounds more like an english "j" (but with a retroflex tongue), and "x" and "q" (as in Xi'an and Qing Dynasty) are closest to english "sh" and "ch" respectively (but articulated with the surface of the tongue rather than the tip).

Although the global trend seems to be towards cultural homogenisation, there is still just too much diversity for any one person to gain even a basic knowledge of every culture in the world. Furthermore, I am convinced that it is impossible to develop an accurate understanding of a culture or a nation without being immersed in it for a period of several years (as this journal is a testament to). In other words, we are all doomed to cultural ignorance. At best, we can cultivate an attitude of tolerance and an awareness that our knowledge is limited. Presumably, this is what those people who follow Mark Twain's advice have realised.

Personally, I think that there are more similarities between cultures than there are differences, but still, the idea that the people of the world will never fully understand each other is a depressing thought. Fortunately, after consideration I have realised that it doesn't really matter. Of course, it becomes an issue when two cultural groups interact regularly with each other, but in general national borders provide an extremely effective safety barrier. Close contact between people of different countries is just not very common, and even when it does happen, cultural ignorance may be considered a sort of intellectual failure but it does not usually amount to a failure in practical terms. For example, in China I have conversed with people, conducted business with people, and got drunk with people whose notion of Australia is that it has a lot of sheep.

Cultural ignorance, stereotypes, insensitivity, extreme nationalism, etc can all be found in China, just as they can be found in most other countries. I would view these things very seriously if I had to choose a foreign diplomat or an overseas business representative, but for the vast majority of people who have little direct contact with foreign countries and no influence on foreign policy, these things really do not matter much at all. At most, they are a frustration for foreign visitors. But hopefully foreign travellers, being the most aware of their own cultural ignorance, will also be the most willing to forgive it in others.

I'm sorry but I'm just very naughty when I meet Chinese people who make silly statements about other countries and cultures. I just make up fictitous countries and spout statistics and facts that play on the Chinese love of quick summaries.

Danguo ["Brave Country"] is a small country near Germany and Poland, but is not well known in China because it has relations with Taiwan. It is the only country in the world to have five seasons and the women are said to be the most beautiful in Europe. The currency is the Danbi, which is very strong and trades at one per twenty renmibi.
Danguo people speak a rare from of Aramaic that is unchanged isnce 4000BC, so we have almost 6000 years of history -even more than China! Danguo people eat pork in the south and beef in the north, and according to the UN have the highest IQ in the world.

Danguo people do not speak English, and in our language "hello" means "my brain hurts".

Or I just tell people I am from Russia.
29.01.2005 , 23:40

You should make friends with some Chinese gay guys and girls. I spend a lot of time with Chinese gays, one of the reasons being that they are often really sophisticated, aware, knowledgable about the wider world, successful and incredibly fluent English speakers. On more than one occasion it has turned out that my best English students identify as gay. Maybe my exeprience is skewed by the fact that I now live in Shanghai, but I have also experienced this in much smaller, more remote cities.
My theory is that because Chinese gays and lesbians almost always talk of being excluded from their own society and culture they are much more driven to the world outside China. It is certainly true that a disproportionate number of my Chinese gay friends has jobs in international marketing and finance.
Daniel [homepage]
01.02.2005 , 08:31

That's all very well, but I have no idea how I would go about *finding* the Xining gay scene.
01.02.2005 , 21:24

Believe it or not, it will be there somewhere around you :) even in Xining
Daniel [homepage]
05.02.2005 , 19:16

I was born in Szechwan province, live now city of
ChengDu is Provincial capital where In China western region of city. Iím versatile good looking
asian gay guy , medium build, Black eyes, black hair., The university graduation.Very fondness for Into movies, Swimming, music
If you are interested send me some emai and let's begin our chapter now.
Welcome to China to Study and tour.
15.02.2005 , 17:26

Just for the record, over the recent Spring Festival I met a history teacher, and he seemed to know more about Australian geography than I do!
25.02.2005 , 16:50

Todd (a China-watcher who shares my name) makes a related comment about criticising other countries here (if you're in China, try accessing it via anonymouse here).
25.02.2005 , 23:46

I remember one time when I told a drunken cab driver in Harbin that I was from Ireland, which was called the "Emerald Isle" (翠洲 was what I improvised; don't know if it's the standard translation) because its inhabitants had a pale green tint to their skin.
My pasty white skin, I explained, had made me an outcast in Ireland, and I'd had to flee to the more tolerant country of China.
Brendan [homepage]
23.03.2005 , 18:09

I'm an Aussie and when I was living in France for a while, kids (and adults) would ask me stuff like "do you have bread (or cars, or wine) in Australia?" And "if your country is upside down, do you fall off?" And my favourite "Why did it take you 2 days to get here, it only takes us a few hours on the train"...(obviously thinking of Austria, the dorks). Anyway the point is that there are lots of culturally insulated countries out there, not just China.
* I ended up telling everyone I met that in Australia we only invented the wheel last year, and we are still working on electricity. Would you believe that a lot of people bought that..??!?!?
31.03.2005 , 12:39


i was living in switzerland in 2000 and invited some friends over for dinner. asking them if they'd ever eaten Indian food before, many people asked me if it was similar to Chinese.

i guess in Australia we're quite lucky to have at least some exposure to multitudes of cultures (if we allow it). At the two schools I teach at there are well over 50 ethnic backgrounds of the students in each school.
16.04.2005 , 01:04

hi my name is cassia and i live in australia i am ten years of age and i am hoping that please will someone tell me my name in chinese or if someone could tell me another sight that will actually tell me my name Luv cassia
10.06.2005 , 16:39

neohet has blogged about a chinese short story published in 1917 called "One Day", and includes (with translation) a hilarious episode where Ms. Zhang (a chinese student studying in America) draws a crowd of local students all asking idiotic questions. Check it out!
07.08.2005 , 11:24

whats my name in chinese?
chloe [homepage]
03.10.2005 , 03:16

what is kara in chinese? what is alicia in chinese
02.03.2006 , 04:23

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